Kill your darlings: How you can learn to love ringing the changes

“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” 

William Faulkner

This compelling but enigmatic statement about the writing process was made by the American writer and Noble Prize laureate William Faulkner. 

It’s possible to interpret this nugget in many ways. Much-quoted in writing circles, it’s usually interpreted as confirmation that writers suffer excessive emotional attachment to their work.

Personally, I have never found that to be true.   

To me, kill your darlings means putting the craft above your ego and writing for the reader, not for yourself. I discovered quite swiftly that writing is, above all, about re-writing. If at first you don’t succeed, keep re-writing until you do.

In my experience, writers are never satisfied with their work. We are prone to continual revision and a sense of incompletion. I’ve revised plays well into the rehearsal period and even years after the first production. You can always do better. And you should want to.

And I love it. I’m beguiled by the idea that the perfect, final version is always just out of reach. Arriving at that point is the quest, and the quest is usually more fun than what awaits at the end. A full stop.

But killing your darlings is about more than just the normal process of editing your work. It’s about a level of objectivity. It’s about understanding that individual moments of brilliance may not serve the whole. Not keeping a worm’s eye view when a bird’s is required. A great football manager knows when to drop their star player if the team isn’t working well around them; and so it goes with writing.

I’ve done my share of killing darlings as a playwright. I’ve deleted scenes, written out characters, changed the entire setting, swapped a girl for a boy, and cut lines that I was enormously proud of because they just didn’t work anymore. Sometimes the decision was made alone during the writing process. Other times I listened to the advice of an actor or director who couldn’t make sense of something. 

You’ve got to be ruthless, and brave. And as I’ve become more skilled as a writer, I’ve discovered the thrill of ringing the changes. I’ve found joy in experimenting with the outcome. 

I’ve also developed an instinct for when to do it. Knowing when the scene I love best doesn’t belong. But writing that scene may have unlocked the rest of the story, and so it has served its purpose. I can pat myself on the back for being a good writer and doing what needed to be done.

I’ve developed a strategy for tackling it. Enjoying it, even. When I make a big change, I tell myself whatever I’ve removed belongs to me. It’s mine, and mine alone. That scene or moment or character was a part of the process that only I got to experience, and that makes it more special. 

It’s part of the secret life of the play, the bits that only you understand and remember the origins. They belong with the notebooks of ideas, the research materials and the ten previous drafts.

It can be quite amusing to reveal these little details to actors as they rehearse the finished product. I once completely blew an actor’s mind (probably unhelpfully) by revealing a major change I made to the story during the second draft.  

I’ve also seen bad acting or directing kill the production. As a playwright, that’s something you have to get used to and take on the chin. If you want to be an utter control freak, you’ll find writing plays in particular very exhausting.

So in making the choice to kill your darlings, it’s about seeing past your emotions, not letting attachment to something unhelpful hold you back.

I’ve also done the same in life; written out a character (a destructive friend or two), changed the setting (moved home) or created a new storyline (got a new job).

There might be things in your life that you can’t bear to part with. But you really should, because the story might be better without them.

Kill your darlings, and see what happens. Not literally though.